These Men Died For Your 3G Signal (And A Paycheck)

In the last few years of the aughts, while many of us privileged jerks were whining about how our iPhones kept dropping calls, and the national mobile network couldn’t handle the call volume generated by our data-slorping smartphones, a hidden army of workers were there for us, risking their lives so that we could download podcasts on the bus. These dudes (they’re all dudes) scale towers to fix and upgrade equipment, working for subcontractors and receiving relatively low pay of $10-$11 per hour. And some of them fall and die.

PBS’s Frontline and Nonprofit investigative journalism outfit ProPublica aired/published their extensive investigation into safety practices in the industry. Injuries and deaths in this line of work aren’t pinned to the telecoms, but on the subcontractors they hire as needed. That’s not necessarily a problem, but the shoddy safety practices of some subcontractors are.

Members of the public can also interview a former cell tower worker and current safety advocate via Reddit. He will be answering questions this morning, probably as soon as he figures out how Reddit works.

Watch The Death of Jay Guilford on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives [ProPublica]
Cell Tower Deaths [Frontline]
I am a former cell tower worker who risked my life for your cell signal [Reddit]


Edit Your Comment

  1. VicMatson says:

    Sounds like the wireless industry needs an intervention, something like Apple to Foxconn.

  2. Blueskylaw says:

    So the cell phone and tower owners sub-contract the work out, then the sub-contractors sub-contract that work out even further. All of this confusion just to save a dime and pay people less, and yet be able to proclaim in a mission statement about how their employees are the most important people to the companies success. What employees – there’s none left, they’re all sub-contractees?

    • scoutermac says:

      I have worked for IT companies doing this sort of thing. In the end it just makes the employees not care and look for work elsewhere and the customers get bad service.

    • CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

      The person responsible for safety is the directly supervising company and the employee.
      Subcontractors are not directly supervised by the wireless companies. The subcontractor company and employees are the only people at fault if they so something unsafe.
      Companies purposely higher subcontractors when they dont want the hassel with all the safety research, laws, and the risk for the workers safety.
      Subcontracting saves you time and money by not having to deal with safety.

    • LastError says:

      Every company says their employees are their greatest asset, which has nothing to do with how they actually treat the employees. Plenty of policies and handbooks and mission statements have been written touting how much value they have but in the end those carefully crafted and printed words are not even worth using as toilet paper.

      Workers are expendable. They are just barely this side of robots in terms of replaceability. If you, worker, don’t like it, we can replace you.

      This is the sad truth of things. Somebody who dies on the job is a tragedy for that person and their family, no doubt. But you can bet the company is concerned with moving the body out of the way so work can resume “to honor the memory of our fallen coworker” or some such junk. “It’s what he would want us to do.” Sure. He’d probably not want to be dead.

  3. Hi_Hello says:

    that sucks….with the cost of a data plan, you figure they can afford to hire some safety equipment or put a net at the bottom.

  4. polishhillbilly says:
  5. rmorin says:

    Looks like they ……. Dropped the call ….

    • Warren - aka The Piddler on the Roof says:


    • Speedstr says:

      That comment may have been funny if people didn’t die. Now it just looks very insensitive.

      • rmorin says:

        It would be insensitive if the people that knew the people that died were reading. Somehow I doubt they are.

        Instead we use humor to discuss difficult things in society. This was an impersonation of CSI: Miami lead David Caruso’s characters typical pun filled announcement of a death in the show. It is more making fun of his corny one-liners than the death of telephone line workers. Humor shouldn’t have limits, nothing is so sacred that well crafted jokes can not be made about it.

      • Libertas says:

        Just wait till I find my slide whistle….

  6. RavenWarrior says:

    From the video, sure, part of it was failing equipment, but part of the blame in that accident had to fall on the guy himself. Using the wrong equipment in the first place, screwing around with it and being under the influence make that case more of a Darwin Award example than a tragedy.

    • coffee100 says:

      Maybe if he were better trained by a competent and responsible employer capable of providing that worker with proper management able to provide leadership it wouldn’t have been an issue.

      • CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

        The wireless companies are not the employer have no responsibility legally to oversee subcontractors safety programs.
        The subcontractor could be the employee himself or could be a company with multiple employees.
        Either way safety is always on the end worker, any problems the end worker has with the employer can easily be reported to OSHA.

        I have a feeling most of these workers are independent and are the lowest bidders on jobs as they dont have any real safety gear that they had to pay for. These scummy people who end up killing themselves take the work away from those that invest in safety equipment thus having higher rates.

  7. coffee100 says:

    And every self-serving jackass who runs their mouth about how unions are nothing but bad for everyone needs to shut up for a minute and understand that this is the inevitable result of a world where the average working guy has nobody on his (or her) side. America’s biggest problem for the last 30 years has been an absence of competent leadership. The people who manage American businesses are incompetent and irresponsible people. It is time for some grownups to be in charge for a while.

    The companies who SUB contract this work out at the same wages as someone who straightens the sweaters at Nordstroms while they bill customers $1500 a megabyte for texts divested themselves of the responsibility of employing Americans because they are too irresponsible to live up to their obligations.

    They’ll take full advantage of the capital markets and the infrastructure and the credit card numbers they can load up with their overpriced shitty products, but when it comes time to employ their neighbors and pay their fair share, suddenly they have higher priorities, like planning another round of layoffs.

    If these companies are so concerned with the global market, why don’t they pack themselves and their companies up and go find someplace more global to do business? Won’t be any loss to America, since they’re too immature and incompetent to employ professionals here anyway.

    • rmorin says:

      The people who manage American businesses are incompetent and irresponsible people.

      False. They are very competent, they just don’t care and know that they don’t have to do any better. There is no incentive for them to care, they still get their millions a year. That is human nature, if we as consumers don’t hold them accountable they will never change.

      And funny you say that unions are a potential solution. Glad that in your world you need to belong to a super special club to be entitled to safety. Why not make laws regarding workplace safety instead? That way you don’t have to give 1% of your salary to a big business (that’s what unions are) to be safe in your job.

      • coffee100 says:

        “They are very competent”

        Really? In the 1950s, there were hundreds of AAA rated companies in the United States. Now there are six. I guess you can’t see past your authority worship far enough to understand you are wrong. The reason this state of affairs is allowed to persist is because of people like yourself who defend the status quo: immaturity, irresponsibility and incompetence.

        “And funny you say that unions are a potential solution.”

        Both my parents belonged to unions, and you know what? Neither of them were ever fired, laid off or injured on the job. The longest I have ever been employed in a salaried job is 15 months. My education and work ethic are identical to theirs. Our employers? Well, they weren’t all that similar.

        But that’s okay. You just keep defending people who, if nobody noticed, would rip the doors off their offices to sell at swap meets if they thought it would fatten their wallet by the width of another dollar. Look around. Everything’s just fine. /s

        • rmorin says:

          Again, companies do not have to be well run to benefit those at the top. So they are not well run. This does not speak to the ability of those on top, they know that they can keep doing poorly and worse case scenario they float to the next job on a 20 million golden parachute.

          And again with unions, why are your parents special? Why should they be afforded certain protections when non-union members do not have them? Why not instead should laws exists that dictate employment practices so every gets protections deemed necessary by society and gets to keep their 1% of their check?

          And why you can’t keep a job? IDK but after reading your posts in the past week it mightttttt have something to do with the fact that you are an incredibly dramatic individual.

          • coffee100 says:

            You’re making the assumption I wanted a job.

            Unlike my former employers (all of them) I’m still in business.

            • StarKillerX says:

              “Both my parents belonged to unions, and you know what? Neither of them were ever fired, laid off or injured on the job. The longest I have ever been employed in a salaried job is 15 months. My education and work ethic are identical to theirs. Our employers? Well, they weren’t all that similar.”

              So your saying that both your union parents didn’t give a shit either?

              FYI, if your fired from one job the problem could be with you or with your employer, if on the otherhand every company you work for cans you then chances are the problem is with you. lol!

              • coffee100 says:

                Well that would be funny except every company that employed me in a salaried job went out of business. And I never served in a management capacity at any of them.

                Now who’s fault is that? Careful now, don’t blame it on the managers.

        • NeverLetMeDown says:

          “Really? In the 1950s, there were hundreds of AAA rated companies in the United States. Now there are six.”

          Yup. The rest of the companies are either in businesses that the ratings agencies simply won’t give AAA ratings to, or have realized that the incredibly low debt levels necessary to get a AAA rating require the company to have a much much higher cost of capital than it would need to. The difference in interest rate you have to pay between an AAA rating and a BBB rating (the lowest level of investment grade) is about 1%. For that difference, you can have twice the debt (much lower cost than equity) on your balance sheet.

          “The longest I have ever been employed in a salaried job is 15 months.”

          Methinks this says a lot more about you than about the employment world.

    • TheMansfieldMauler says:

      You know how I know you’ve never taken a business or economics class?

    • CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

      Companies usually subcontract to the lowest bidder.

      These unsafe companies are cutting costs on safety to under bid everyone else to get the work.
      Unions will not fix this, only stricter laws will.

      • crispyduck13 says:

        So why is everyone bitching that auto plant workers make so much money? I thought you couldn’t even get a job at a US automobile manufacturing plant unless you joined the UAW and let them represent you. The UAW is the one fighting the companies to keep wages and benefits high. So they’ve effectively removed the ability to be the “lowest bidder” in that entire industry.

        You can’t legislate this, well technically you can, but you can’t legislate enforcement without support. Who want to raise taxes so OSHA can do it’s damn job properly? Do you have any idea how many companies are operating in the US right now with the most piss poor safety equipment this side of the Dominican Republic? They pay a shitty wage to immigrants (many of them women) with little education and no idea that their working conditions are illegal.

        OSHA can’t be in 50,000 places at once.

  8. SmokeyBacon says:

    Our techs work on the batteries at some of these towers (on the ground) and the guys say that there is no way that they could climb up there. And sadly it sounds like our guys are paid more (which they shouldn’t be – they should get what they get but the guys who do that climbing should make a lot more).

    I also saw them working on one near our office at one time – it was a really cold, gray day and I just felt bad for the guys up there because I knew it had to be so much worse up there. They got the attention of everyone in the office though, and no one wanted to trade places with them.

  9. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    $10 or $11 an hour? I’m surprised they don’t just pick up some guys from in front of Home Depot who will work for half of that.

    • atomix says:

      And have a lot less legal recourse. I think you just made a communications climbing subcontractor’s day.

    • gman863 says:

      $10 per hour is the going rate in the parking lots of Home Depots in the Houston area.

      How do I know this? A former contract employer of mine would send a van to pick up warehouse “temps” at the Home Depot’s Gulfgate store.

  10. PSUSkier says:

    I believe (based on this video and actually through hearing conversations of people who do this work) that it isn’t strictly required that the people that climb these towers use safety equipment. In fact, most of the time they do not because it slows them down. I think the OSHA fine in this case was due to the fact that he was given faulty equipment with the wrong rope types and whatnot, but free climbing seems to be the standard practice. Even worse, the people who do this job don’t make loads of money.

    • Mark says:

      They’re supposed to wear gear, but most guys choose not to. Me, I won’t climb without gear on.

    • Geekybiker says:

      Safety equipment is often a hassle. If you’ve ever worked a job where safety equipment is required you’ll constantly see guys trying to skirt the rules because its annoying, takes longer, and is often uncomfortable. Those are place where its provided and officially required. I can only imagine how little use it get when safety isn’t a priority.

    • Bane of Corporations says:

      It goes both ways, (I climb poles and towers). Some radio towers and things of that nature it’s not possible to wear an ascender while climbing, because there is no safety cable running up. You would have to constantly stop to hook and unhook every other section. In those cases OSHA allows climbing sans being tied off, but you can still tie off when you stop to take a break or when you get to the top to the area your working. It is true though, if your not tied off and you slip and fall or whatever, your dead, there is no way your grabbing on while falling or surviving the tall drop to concrete or whatever.

  11. ovalseven says:

    I don’t get that last line. Was the insult aimed at Reddit, or was it meant for the tower worker?

    • Bremma says:

      Pretty sure it’s a reference to reddit’s AskMeAnything (AMA) section, where people with intersting or life affecting conditions/beliefs/etc, will open themselves up to let reddit users ask them questions about their experiences. Usually best done when one has a lot of free time to read and respond.

    • Laura Northrup says:

      The guy posted the AMA 15 hours before he intended to answer any questions, but I don’t believe he mentioned that in the post. And he accidentally made two different posts.

    • Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ã‚œ-゜ノ) says:

      As a non-reddit-er, I think it’s a dig at reddit. It’s pretty confusing for a gussied up message board.

  12. SamiJ says:

    My spouse climbed towers to move dishes. He wasn’t given any safety equipment. He wasn’t a subcontractor. The work needed to be done, it needed to be done now, and he was too naive to say no to his supervisor. His company often had workers using heavy machinery or equipment well beyond OSHA. There was an “everybody does it” mentality along with a ‘suck it up and get it done’ culture.

  13. Hibyeman says:

    they should be paid more i mean at&t and verison do you really need all that money no you don’t you can afford to pay more money to the people your company depends on

    • StarKillerX says:

      So, they should pay more then the subcontractors asked for the job?

      Do you get $50 in gas and give the clerk $60 since “you can afford to pay more?”

      • Hibyeman says:

        what i mean is you should offer them a wage that is higher the what they make if all there customers found out about this and they were not all spoiled americans the at&t and verison would pay a lot more to them

  14. samonela says:

    Many Bothans died to bring us this network…

  15. CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

    Safety is both the company and workers responsiblity, but subcontractors are 100% on their own for safety as they are under their own supervision. If they go cheap and dont buy the proper gear then that is their own fault if they die.

    • scoutermac says:

      Like it or not you are correct.

    • coffee100 says:

      No, it’s the company’s responsibility, and because the companies and the people who run them are irresponsible, the workers pay the price.

      If someone gets hurt at work, it’s the CEO’s fault. And when it isn’t the CEO’s fault, it’s still their fault because they are the CEO. That’s called responsible leadership. Case closed.

      • CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

        Right, the CEO of the subcontracting company that was in charge/had direct supervision of the work, not the multimillion dollar companies that hired the contractor/subcontractor.

        Unfortunately these small subcontracting companies are usually self employed independents under their own supervision or maybe a group of 5 to 10 workers and one owner.
        These subcontractors get the work by under cutting prices for everyone that has higher rates that actually bought safety gear.
        When most of these subcontractors lack safety equipment is it because the worker themselves did not want to buy it for themselves to save money.

  16. RickinStHelen says:

    My wife used to work for a tower company that sent crews all over the world. Even when you follow all safety precautions the work is dangerous. They had towers fail and collapse during construction. This happens, but where most injuries occur is when the workers do not tie off and use safety equipment. Unllike the workers in this story, they were well compensated. Most Americans don’t want to hear this, but in construction, mining, and fabricating, workers are injured and die. Often at fairly low wages. Since most of us do not work in these areas, it is easy to overlook. The energy that powers your laptop and brews your trendy coffee, quite possibly came at the cost of a workers life.

  17. atomix says:

    I climbed for a bit back in 2002. At the time, word was that the FAA and OSHA were instating regulations that would require towers to employ a top-to-bottom cable installation with an anti-fall clutch or brake that should prevent accidents like this.

    So either I was misinformed, the regulation never went through, these contractors are breaking the law, or the climbers are ignoring the safety provisions.

  18. Budala says:

    Got to love the freedom this country offers. You have the freedom to quit your job for any reason at any time.

  19. nickmark says:

    OSHA has very clear rules which where not followed in this case as to what equipment must be used and tested and inspected before and after each use. Any employee willing to break OSHA rules has only his own self to blame.And any supervisor who overlooks these rules needs terminated and thrown out of this line of work period. It is exactly that employees are lazy and will not comply or say no when something is wrong on a job that people get hurt. I see it all the time with slob contractors at radio station I am engineer at we have told several company’s never to come back and reported them to OSHA after unsatisfactory following of work rules at our towers.

  20. Libertas says:

    I am looking for my slide whistle before I watch the video. Has anybody seen it?

  21. Bane of Corporations says:

    I climb cell towers to work on and maintain sports lighting (my line of work). Often times a high school will allow one of their football field light poles to be replaced by a cell tower with said lights mounted to it. In exchange they get some monthly sum from the cell company(s). Cities do the same at public parks.

    So yea, from someone that climbs them, sometimes by myself, sometimes while the contractor is still on site from the install. Some pole / towers are really badly designed or assembled or installed. Off centered steps, or huge gaps in steps, or having to climb over or around mounted equipment etc. all common problems. Also the lack of proper safety harnesses tie of points or not where you need one, lack of platforms to be able to work more easily and safely at the top of the pole. Yea, sometimes it really sucks, and I think fault can be placed a lot of places; the people doing poor designs, the low bid contractors not doing things properly or with the right equipment or improperly trained workers.

    Some might think this mean, but also with some of the people that died I’m sure. You have to be responsible for yourself in that, your taking care of your own equipment and making sure your tied off whenever you can be, etc. If something is too unsafe I will postpone a job and access it with a crane or man lift. Some poles can’t be gotten to by cranes etc so that’s not always an option, but again, I wouldn’t climb something really unsafe, although I have gotten to pole tops and found there was no railing (original non stainless steel cables rusted through) or loose safety cable hardware etc. If nothing else this can bring some light on the issues and get companies and people to operate more safely, or implement safer designs. Not counting on it myself though, I’ll continue climbing either way though ;)

    If nothing

  22. Rick Sphinx says:

    I worked at hardware store for about a month before being fired for not risking my life. They wanted me to stand on the forks of a forklift, lift me 30 feet in the air to change light bulbs. I said NO (this can be done, with an attachment for this, with floor and rails, but they had none of this). Then he said, “well, you operate the forklift, and I’ll do it”, I said I wanted no part of this, too dangerous. I know two people who did this sort of thing on forklifts, one was messed up for life, the other died! But I know if you are desperate for a job, you may do things you normally would not do.